30 April 2010

First Term at Malory Towers

I have to apologise in advance for this post, as it isn’t as good as I would like. I’ve re-written the damn thing about 3 times, but this book really is quite boring. I never realised how little plot there is. If I were to rename it, it would be ‘random stuff that happened at school this term’ or ‘Gwendoline joins a cult’ (or something near enough as makes no difference – the school is a very strange splinter of society)

It must be because most of the book is introduction. I’ve already done that, so I’m trying not to cover new ground. Most of the book is really just those ‘housekeeping’ issues that Blyton mentions to readers so that later on we all understand what she is talking about. Darrell just wanders through the scenes with wide eyes thinking ‘golly, this is all grand’ and we tag along, vicariously awed … without the rose-coloured glasses, it is so dreadfully dull. Or perhaps that’s just the caffeine talking – I’ve pulled an overnighter to write an essay this week, then decided that it would be ‘fun’ to go to IKEA after work today (after vowing not to buy anything, I came out with a heap of kitchen stuff and a bag of Swedish meatballs ...), so I’ve been hitting the tea with a vengeance. Everything around me seems slow ...

I just have to note one thing: the covers to my books. I judge a book by its cover Always have, always will. These Dean covers from the mid 90s were the images that I have always associated with MT ... although why they are all dressed circa 1993, I’ll never know.

Please note the school bags with the drawstring top and buckled flap over the top. These were ever so cool in the mid 90s. I almost expect them to be wearing Doc Martens and wearing a ‘Nirvana’ t-shirt under their uniform, or wearing those black rubber bands on their wrists. Sigh ... those were the days ...

But on to the story:

Basic plot: our heroine, Darrell Rivers, begins the book by being excited about going to school. She goes to school, she settles into the institution, and is indoctrinated into the ways of the regime, shit happens, then more shit happens. Dung beetle Blyton then rolls all of this tightly up in a ball and squashes it in time for everyone to catch the train home for hols. Hurrah all round, I say.
I won’t bore you with the details – Darrell fits in and joins a ‘gang’ (seriously – she becomes friends with the class trouble-makers Alicia and Betty … they are so cool), but Gwendoline doesn’t. Chapters have highly imaginative titles such as ‘First Night and morning’, ‘Miss Potts’ Form’, ‘The first week goes by’ … the excitement inherent in those chapters is almost palpable.

We get a class prank from too-cool-for-school Alicia (she pretends to be deaf), who then runs into trouble by really going (temporarily) deaf … oh, how we chuckle at the poetic justice! Darrell also learns that being in a gang lowers her intelligence, so she downgrades her full membership to an associate membership. Gwendoline gets bullied, but finds no support from the teaching staff (having been told by her teacher not to ‘sneak’ on her classmates ... even going so far as to threaten to tell the class that Gwen is ‘sneaking’ so that they can punish her). It is almost like Darrell came home from school and sat down with her mum and a pot of tea and developed verbal diarrhoea, spilling out a heap of little anecdotes, unconnected except for the fact that they happened at school ...

What to notice: Darrell’s uniform: Brown and Orange. Need I say more? Well yes, I do – although my mum would be horrified. The only redeeming feature is the tunic – you know, the ones with three box pleats down the front and back. I love those things, but when I bought one from an op-shop, my mother just about had flashbacks to ‘Nam. She couldn’t believe I would actually choose to wear one, but they are seriously cool. However, it is the only bright spot of the outfit – again I say Brown and Orange.

Parents: Daddy has buggered off to work, so mummy (Enid) takes Darrell to the train station (I should point out that an Enid Blyton book is like that scene in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich goes through the hole … she’s everywhere). Cue big smug pat on the back for mummy being so sensible about dumping her daughters with strangers. They turn up to the station, Darrell is deposited with the teacher and then Mummy happily toddles off. She is there all of a couple of minutes – doesn’t even see the train off … Yes, that’s what I call good parenting. I just love the callousness of the whole set up. All these parents who routinely send their little beloveds off without a qualm – I wonder what they would think of all the stories of violence in these institutions. The other new girl, Sally, turns up sans parents. Just think: a 12 year old girl, with luggage, was sent off to London to catch a train all by herself. Nice.

By contrast, Gwendoline Mary, my new favourite character, is seen off by a mother who is actually sad to see her go … but she is instantly condemned for failing at the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ thing. I think we can see here the very moment when Gwendoline’s torture begins – I’d say more (in fact I did say more) but I realised I have entire post that may be devoted to darling Gwendoline Mary. I love Gwen.

The accommodation: Finally we get to the ‘dormy’ – home for the next year. Basically, it’s a row of cubicles, separated by curtains, with minimal furnishings and … well that’s it really. Don’t think Harry Potter here with four poster beds and awesome little tower windows. I have a vision of an old-fashioned hospital ward – all metal bed frames, whitewashed walls and thin mattresses. There are wash basins at either end but no bathrooms, and it is a comfort to us all to know that the girls won’t be bathing regularly? It wouldn’t be a proper traditional English school story if there were hygiene standards!

Shit happens

The real highlight of the book on is our glimpses of Darrell’s anger management problems.
Gwendoline, who I am choosing to call socially inept, triggers the first psychotic episode form Darrell by tormenting the class puppy Mary-Lou, and Darrell lays into Gwendoline, giving her several ‘stinging slaps’.

‘Darrell’s hand was strong and hard, and she had slapped with all her might, anywhere she could reach as Gwendoline hastily tried to drag herself out of the water. The slaps sounded like pistol shots.’

Everyone is most shocked, not because Darrell hit Gwen, but that it wasn’t her job to do so. I am not joking – the head-girl of the form wanted to punish Darrell for taking away her right to ‘discipline’ Gwen. But of course, all is well once Darrell apologises – so like an abusive husband (I was really hoping that the class would collectively develop battered woman’s syndrome and take Darrell down by the end of the series, but, alas, I have never been so fortunate as to have the ending of the series change between readings). Later on, she attacks Sally, who takes offence at Darrell being nosy:

‘Darrell could not bear to be touched when she was in a temper, and she shoved back with all her might, and she sent Sally flying across the little room. Sally fell across the chair, and lay there for a minute.
She put her hand on her stomach. ‘Oh, it hurts,’ she said. ‘Oh you wicked girl, Darrell!’’

It is interesting to note that after this lovely little scene, Sally and Darrell become besties ... If I hit you, would you become my friend?

What happens to the other characters?

Well, Mary-Lou becomes friends with Gwen after Darrell figuratively hits her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Gwen plays tricks on her new pet and blames Darrell, so Darrell gets ‘sent to coventry’.

(Sidenote: sending someone to Coventry is an awesome name for a punishment. The mechanics of it is that everyone around the ‘sent’ person ignores them for a set period of time, not speaking to them or acknowledging their existence. No one knows with any degree of certainty why people are sent to Coventry, but I really want to go there and see whether people talk to me!
Note 2: I should like to point out that this punishment was also widespread in the unions during the early part of the 20th century. One wonders why upper-class school-girls would employ such a low-class practice. Tsk tsk …)

Mary-Lou faces her fears (after having her courage bucked up by possibly the worst ruse known to man – getting the puppy to save a supposedly drowning Darrell. Truly, it was a sickening scene) and proves Darrell innocent. Hurrah! This drops Gwendoline in the shit, for which everyone is happy!

Gwen runs foul of everyone and gets picked on over every perceived wrong, from missing home on the first night, to wearing her hair out to class (‘you can’t have your hair like that – not in school!’ I especially like EB’s editorial comment after her hair is tightly plaited ‘She did look much nicer now’), and has a pretty rotten term.

Everyone ignores Sally (I bet you forgot her!) because she is a moody, cold fish, but it comes out that Sally was sent to school because her mother had a second child. So she is a girl with abandonment issues, who also contracts appendicitis during term (exacerbated by Darrell’s hissy-fit as described earlier). Of course, after Darrell’s ‘daddy’ (cue family propaganda) comes and whips out the offending organ, Darrell is sent in to fix all her mental issues. Do but see how the expert manages such a feat:

‘I’ve got a little sister, too. It’s lovely to have a sister. [...]’
Sally’s ideas of sisters underwent a sudden change ....'

Hallelujah!! Can I hear an Amen? She’s cured!! And from that moment on, Sally and Darrell are BFFs.

As for Irene, she seems to have lost her last name – how silly of her. I never realised that she is never given a last name. Jean says ‘och’ a couple of times, and apparently is good with money. The other girls do stuff, and it’s amazing because it’s at boarding school and everything there is amazing, don’t you know.

GAH!! This post isn’t really up to standard. Taking the rose goggles off is harder than I thought ... the next one shall be better, I promise. I just need to adjust to this new sight ... it’s so overwhelming!


  1. Hi. I just have to say that "Dung Beetle Blyton" made me laugh so hard. The thought of her little legs toddling to roll some shit up.... Man. Thank you.

  2. I just got these again for my birthday (though I'm beyond old enough to have my own teenagers to send away to good old Malory Towers) and they've clearly been edited now. Darling Darrell just shook Gwen in my new version though I was sure she originally hit her. Seems my memory wasn't failing me!

    My biggest question.... Even with the fact they're all rich and rah rah about everything, considering these were written during and after WW2, where the heck did they get all their chocolate, ginger beer, chocolate cakes, ginger cakes, chicken, eggs, bacon etc from? Last I checked, rationing was in place into the 50s even for the rich (though clearly they would have benefitted more than the common people from the black market). And why the heck would anyone suck a lemon halfway through a lax match?

    I went to a private girls' school myself. It was a living hell. Thankfully it was only day school. I don't think I could have coped with that environment 24 hours a day!